In a 1944 classic still in print, The Historian’s Craft, Marc Bloch memorably described history as the science, or study of change over time. Such a vast and ambitious undertaking requires an analysis of diverse sources, from textual ones, like diplomatic and court records to material objects, like paintings and china, and various numerical records, like bank ledgers and parish registries. Yet, what can today’s historians accurately and reliably measure, given that records from some banks and parishes do not survive and that views change continually about what ought to be recorded in the first place? In this connector course, we will explore how historical data becomes historical evidence and how recent technological advances affect long-established practices, such as close attention to historical context and contingency. Will the advent of cheap computing and of big data make history count more and lead to unprecedented insights or will history be discounted, even discarded as an obsolete approach to the study of change over time?

During our weekly discussions, we will apply what we learn in lectures and labs to the analysis of selected historical sources, such as military casualty reports and sales ads in newspapers, and learn how to create so-called historical datasets. We will also consider scholarly debates, such as the recent controversy over the History Manifesto, co-authored by a Cal History PhD, Jo Guldi, and older ones about the supposed efficiency of slavery. The main requirement for the connector is active participation, and thus close engagement with assigned materials before our meetings, for instance looking over a set of primary sources or reading a journal article. There are two short assignments, identifying and analyzing a primary source and writing an evaluation of a scholarly article.